Sally Lloyd-Jones is a British-born writer of wonderful children's books, most notably The Jesus Storybook Bible, which has sold well over 100,000 copies and shows better than many theological texts how everything in the Bible points to Christ.
Were you an imaginative child? I'm told I was always dreaming. They would have the children stand up in front at church and sing, and you could always tell the children who were really joining in and paying attention from the ones who were just staring into space. That was me-my sister was the one doing all the singing. I was always in another world.
Why did you decide 20 years ago to move from London to New York City? A New York job I saw advertised at a bookseller's in London described a job like the one I was already doing, and I thought, "Oh, that would be an adventure." I had always wanted my life to be like an adventure, and I was ready for one. I thought, "I can go for a year; there's nothing wrong with that." At the time I was thinking that it was probably not a good career move, but I imagined myself years later telling some grandchildren, "You know, I nearly went to America," and that was the end of the story. I thought, "Oh, that's awful. At least I can go and if it's awful, I can say that it didn't work out and come back."
Was it awful? No. I had great fun, great friends, a great church-and I kept on staying.
You worked as a packager. What's a packager? A publisher that wants a particular format-a pop-up book, a photography book-hires a packager who does everything short of publishing the book. It was great training in how publishing works, very much fun, and never boring. You can end up writing the book, or designing it. It gets you thinking of not just the words of the book, but all aspects, like length, illustrations, and paper.
Later you went to work for Reader's Digest. Reader's Digest took us over, and my division-the Christian children's books line, we had a great team-suffered a 40 percent cutback in 2000. For some reason I just knew I was on that list. I had been praying against being cut because it was scary, even though I didn't love the work because it was getting really corporate, and I was doing less of what I really loved. I was a bit stifled, but you get caught up in the pension and the health care and the check every month, and you can't imagine that stopping. So all my prayers at the time were, "Lord, please don't let me be on that list. Please make the numbers look good so I can stay." If we knew everything that God was doing in our lives, we would cheer Him on. Thank goodness He didn't answer my prayer and He did what He was planning to do, which was get me out of there!
So suddenly you are out of work, and instead of despairing you have an opportunity to do something on your own. I was lucky to have an outplacement for six months, where I had an office to go to, copier machines, and that stuff. I thought I could be a sub-packager, which is everything except for printing the books. So I kept doing Christian children's books for publishers that I worked with. In the back of my mind I was thinking, I would love to write but I could never make a living writing, so I'll just keep doing this. I was working on one particular book, writing the text, and I thought, "Wait a minute, this text is actually quite good, I'm going to save it to do in a picture book." Then I invited an illustrator friend to come to New York, and suggested that we come up with an idea for a book.
Your niece helped? I noticed that my niece Olivia always carried around a pink handbag, even when she was playing horrible battles with her brother. She is such a girly girl; I was not like that. I asked her, "Olivia, what do you keep in your handbag?" She looked at me like I was the most insane person and she said, "My friends." She opened it up, and there was a purple troll, a green creature, a plastic carrot . . . something about that got my heart. It made me laugh, but it moved me in a weird way. So when my friend Sue came over we talked about handbags, and what we could put in a handbag. It was just going to be a novelty board book, six spreads. I was trying not to write a story, because I was so sure I couldn't write. We took it to the publisher and he said, "I love this idea, but we really need a story." I turned deathly pale and thought, "Now we're going to find out I can't write," even though writing was what I had always wanted to do.
Why did you think you couldn't write? Because I imagined that to be a writer was way up there, and I just assumed that I couldn't do it. The publisher said something that was so helpful: "We could get someone else to write it." I said, "No, no." I thought, "I can't give it away; I've got to try." And he said, "Just write what makes you laugh." I thought, "You're allowed to do that? You're allowed to make people laugh?" I thought writing a children's book was something way out there, and I didn't realize that I could just write what was close to me. The thing that comes naturally to you is so close to you that you can't even see it, so the danger is to discount it and think that everyone can do it, but it's not true. That was very helpful to me, to realize that I just had to make people laugh.
How did you start? I knew that the first line in the book would be, "Once upon a time there were no handbags. It was terrible; people all across the land had nowhere to carry their things." It's just nonsense, but it made me laugh. Now it's an adventure storybook about these little friends, the Handbag Friends, who go on an adventure and rescue the baby handbag that had been captured by the terrible, bad handbag.
I was fortunate enough to work with a publisher who let me be really creative, and it was such fun. I collaborated with the illustrator, and it was really a blast.
Were you then able to start writing more? The sub-packaging started drying up, and I thought, "This is horrible, because that's how I make a living!" I thought, "Perhaps I'm just supposed to be writing"-but the leap between doing that and writing meant that I had to be prepared not to have much money for a time. That was tricky. I had some savings, and I was using that. Someone said to me, "You're investing in yourself." When you're writing a book it may not earn any money for four or five years. Instead of saying, "I'm going down a slippery slope, I'm using up my savings," you have to tell yourself, "I'm investing in myself." There are a lot of tricks you have to use in your head.
Do you try out your stories on children? I try to, but that can be hard because they need to see the pictures. Usually I have to finish the manuscript before the pictures, but when you know the illustrator, then you can really test it out well. Another thing that's nice about picture books is that you have to get rid of your ego. With an illustrator, if I put more words on the page, then the pictures will get smaller, and really the child would suffer, and the whole book would suffer. So I have to be thinking, "What's more important, the book or my words?" You will be more generous if you write it for the reader.
And you have to produce something that adults, the book buyers, also will like? The danger with children's books is that a lot of them are an adult's idea of what children will like. I don't like those books, because I don't think they're really for children. They're not looking at the child eye to eye; they're looking down on the child. I think it's very important to be on the same level as the child.
Did you have to learn to rewrite? One book went through about 22 revisions. You can't be editing the first draft; you have to let it all come out. The writer and the editor are two different people, kind of schizophrenic. But you've got to protect the writer role from the editor role, because the editor comes along and says, "That's not funny, you've got to cut that." If I know what I've written is too long, then I try it out on certain friends to see where they laugh. If they don't, I worry that it's not coming across. And then I work with a really good editor who constantly pushes me to do better. Everyone needs an editor-an editor gets you to do your best work. But you have to be careful not just to do what they say. You have to think, "Is that really the right voice?"
Where do you write? You've used the New York Public Library and coffee shops, right? Yes, I was trying not to be in my apartment all the time, so I would go to the library. And I would sit there and think, "OK, I'm writing now." And I'd look around and there were people with huge manuscripts, looking really clever, and I would think, "They're writing great novels. Why can't I do that? What am I doing?" I realized that the library wasn't good for me. Then I realized I had to pretend that I was playing; I couldn't pretend I was writing some modern novel. So I then decided that a better place for me was a coffee shop where I could have some coffee, wear my headphones, and the people around me were all doing the same thing, working on their laptops. It's a much younger energy-not so stuffy. I started to learn what works and what doesn't and not to make rules for myself.
And you write sometimes at home-what is your home environment like? I have a one-bedroom and a big, old English desk. But when you come into the apartment you don't see it-my interior design friend recommended that, that the minute you come in you don't see your work. I've put on the wall things that inspire me, like pictures of my nieces and nephews, and I have the [painting] of two workers who've stopped work and are praying over a ploughed field. I have that on my desk because I think that's what my work is: I'm just like a farmer praying over seeds. It's not up to me. Even a picture book is like a seed and it will grow. It's God who does the work, and I just have to keep showing up. Things like that inspire me and keep me remembering what I'm doing and why I'm doing it. For me, the best thing to remember is that I'm only supposed to be writing what I'm meant to be writing, and I'm doing it for children. It sounds cheesy, but it's true. God's given me a gift and I need to be a good steward of it.